More on Gradual Engagement

by June 18, 2010

Twitter's recent sign-up redesign boosted new user conversion 29% by using gradual engagement. Naturally these results got people interested: "what is gradual engagement and how does it work?" Here's a compilation of my thoughts on the topic.

What is Gradual Engagement?

In an interview for the Silicon Valley Web Guild, I walked through a simple definition of gradual engagement.

Q:In your book, you mention the concept of ‘gradual engagement’. Would you explain what this is?

A: Gradual engagement is an alternative to the all too common sign-up form. I’m sure you’ve encountered your fair share. You come across a new Web service and the first thing you need to do is fill out a registration form. As a new customer experience, that sucks.

Through gradual engagement, we can communicate what Web services do and why people should care by allowing them to actually interact with the application in gradual ways. Have a Web application? Let me start using it before I need to fill in a registration form. Allow me to learn why it’s great before I commit to being a customer.

As an example, we can look at Genia Web service that allows anyone to set up a family tree and share it with family and friends. What’s the first thing potential customers need to do when they arrive at Geni? Fill out a registration form? Nope, they make a family tree. After all, that’s what’s Geni is for. Their approach to gradual engagement has given the service five million profiles in five months!

How Can You Use Gradual Engagement?

In an interview for Rosenfeld Media, I tried to outline how teams can take advantage of gradual engagement for their products.

Q: You mention gradual engagement in your book, where users and site owners engage in a growing dialog via a series of web forms. Is there a standard sequence or syntax in such a dialog, as there often is in a conversation between two strangers?

Answer: What I try to encourage teams to do is reflect the core essence of their service with a few lightweight interactions. If you can make people successful along the way—even better. Will Wright, the creator of the Sims & Spore, has a belief that games should allow people to succeed within the first five seconds. That's a great philosophy to bring to gradual engagement. In fact, I think if you can use lightweight actions to allow people to accomplish something relevant to the core of your product within their first one or two interactions with your service, that's gradual engagement at its finest.

Let me try to illustrate with an example. A while back I worked with PatientsLikeMe. Their core objective is to allow people with serious medical conditions to find and learn from each other. To emphasize what the service does and give people a really lightweight way to get engaged, I advocated letting people simply enter a symptom they had or treatment they were taking as a first step. Basically a simple one input field form. Once they entered this very small amount of information, they'd get a response that told them how many patients on the site shared that treatment or symptom. These would be the people they could find and learn from—which emphasizes the point of the service. From there, people could expand the amount of information they want to share in a similar manner and create a proper account. Compare that process to a registration form that asks people to hand over a lot of personal information without getting anything back. That's a more typical approach and not really in line with gradual engagement.

Design Engagement, Not Forms

In an article for the American Society for Information Science and Technology, I explained why gradual engagement is mostly an information architecture challenge.

Getting people through a form is just one way to gather information. On the web, however, forms are often the de facto choice for data requests. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of throwing a web form in front of people every time we need some information, we can turn instead to the principles behind gradual engagement.

Gradual engagement allows us to gather information from people in a way that gets them involved in our web applications. If done right, gradual engagement can also educate people on the benefits and features our applications provide.

Take for example Tripit. This application for managing your travel plans by using your travel confirmation emails could easily have asked all new members to sign up through a registration form. Instead, to the join the service new members simply have to send Tripit a travel confirmation email. From this email, Tripit creates an account and extracts the information it needs to create a rich travel plan for new members. No form required. People sign up for Tripit by using it and learning what the application can do for them.

Gradual engagement is an information architecture challenge because it requires us to think about the core essence of an application and develop a process that introduces it to people while gathering the information the service needs to be useful along the way. This sequencing of information requests as interactions has the potential to create more rewarding and memorable first time experiences for web applications.

A Different Form of Sign-Up

In my Sign Up Forms Must Die article on A List Apart, I highlighted a few examples of gradual engagement across the Web

I’ll just come out and say this: sign-up forms must die. Consider the process of stumbling upon or being recommended to a web service. You arrive eager to dive in and start engaging and what’s the first thing that greets you? A form.

We can do better. In fact, I believe we can get people engaged with digital services in a way that tells them how such services work and why they should care enough to use them. I also believe we can do this without explicitly making them fill out a sign-up form as a first step. Read more...